04-27-11 - Mexico

Just back from Mexico and a few random thoughts I want to record.

We were there during Semana Santa which is this huge Mexican holiday where everyone goes to the beach and parties. Lots of people told us not to go during that time, it was horrible, blah blah blah. Well those people suck, they're the kind of people who say things like "Mexico would be great if it wasn't full of Mexicans". I thought it was very cool to see. For one thing it meant that these gringo tourist towns were actually full of Mexicans, which hides some of their horribleness. It's also just a wonderful lively atmosphere, it's like being in New Orleans for Mardi Gras or something. Obviously you have to be smart about where you book your hotel - not right on a busy beach, not right on the town square - but other than that it's fine.

It was really cool seeing all the families. So the families come to the beach and find a table at a palapa and just sit there all day. Mexican restaurant hospitality believes in never rushing the patron or making them feel like they have to leave, so you can just sit there all day. The families even often bring their own food and drink, and you just have to order a tiny bit from the restaurant over the course of the day. Then the parents just sit there and the kids run around and play all day. It's an absolutely wonderful system.

It's so good for me just to be away from computers and television. And it's lovely to be somewhere warm where you can be outside all the time. I love the evening promenade, after the sun is down and it's cool enough, everyone strolls around town or hangs out in the square. It's tragic that as soon as I get home I immediately go for the TV and computer and fuck myself over. I have such peace when I wake up in the morning and sit on the porch and I know that all I can do right then is sit there because there is no computer, there is no TV.

Whenever I get back from a third world country, it strikes me how little freedom we actually have in the US. We are an incredibly repressed people. For example, during Semana Santa tons of people descend on the beaches and camp. Many of the places that they camp are technically private property or even public beaches but with forbidden camping; it's allowed because there's just not very much enforcement and because it's tradition. If a house is abandoned or something of course you move into it. If you're poor, you can make work by selling stuff on the beach, or opening up a food cart.

The latest trend I'm seeing in America that really bothers me is that even parking lots are gated or chained off. God forbid somebody goes on your parking lot when you're not using it. In Seattle city area I don't think there's a single parking lot that isn't fenced/chained at night. There's this oppressive feeling that you have to stay within the lines all the time.

We spent most of the time in the Costa Alegre area, a huge, empty, dry, hot space. It sort of reminded me of the trips to Mexico we used to take when I was a kid. We went to Isla Mujeres primarily, but it was 20 years ago and it was very different than it is now. There was only one big hotel for gringos, and the rest of the town was still local fisherman or a few small Mexican hotels (concrete boxes with no AC, very cheap). We went every summer for many years, and it was gradually changing, getting more developed, but the big change happened when some huge hurricane wiped the island clean, and of course it was rebuilt by the big money tourism developers, and now it's like a Disneyland styrofoam facsimile of a "Mexican island village".

There are lots of little farm towns around the Costa Alegre area. They're dusty and poor and feel like time moves very slowly there. It occurs to me that little farm towns like these are all over Mexico; I have no idea if this is true, but it feels like the towns are full of children and old people, like the middle aged have all left to seek work. It's sort of tragic for the world that it's not possible for people to make a living in these little farm towns. The amount of money they need to make to stay in the town is so tiny too, probably only a dollar a day or so, and they can't even make that.

It seems to me that it's in the best interest of the whole world to make subsistence farming viable. It would prevent mass immigrations and refugee problems. If you are anti-illegal-immigrant in the US, forget building a wall, what you need to do is stop the US government from subsidizing crop prices and domestic agribusiness.

The other issue is that the wonderful handicrafts they make in these towns just can't support them. There's lots of wonderful weavers, leather workers, etc. with great skills, and in theory they could make that stuff and sell it to the city folk, but they just can't sell enough of it for high enough prices. The problem is that western consumers just don't want quality hand made stuff, we want stuff that's the latest trend, and we don't care if it's cheap factory made junk. Certainly part of the problem is that the country handiworkers don't cater to modern tastes enough; I feel like there is an opportunity there for some charity to work with the small town craftsmen to teach them how to make things more aligned with what western consumers want. But it's not clear that would make a big difference, there just aren't enough consumer who care about getting a hand made belt vs a machine made one.

Anyway, I'm just amazed by the tacos you get for fifty cents. The tortillas are always made to order, even at the most ghetto road side cart, of course they make the tortillas to order! Someone (usually an older woman) grabs a handful of masa, slaps it around to shape it, presses it, and tosses it on the griddle (comal). The cooked tortilla has a subtle flavor of malty browned corn. My favorite thing was probably the quesadillas (which aren't really like our quesadillas at all), because they use a larger thicker tortilla which lets you get more of the flavor of the masa.

Some random impressions of my youth in Mexico :

Packs of wild dogs. On Isla Mujeres there was a pack of some 20 dogs or so that roamed the streets, constantly barking, stopping to smell things then running to catch up, breaking into sudden vicious fights with each other, fucking each other, snarling. It was variable in size, because dog ownership in Mexico is sort of a gray area; some people own dogs like Americans do, coddling them and keeping them indoors and feeding them, but others own them in a looser way, sort of just allowing a semi-wild dog to hang around, and the semi-wild dog might run off and hang with the pack for a while before coming home. We would chase them around town, or be chased by them, always sort of afraid of their wildness and fascinated by the way they could roam the streets and nobody seemed to be bothered much by it.

Rebar. Every building is ready to have another floor added. There's a shop on the first floor, the second floor is poured concrete, but unfinished and empty, and above that rebar juts into the sky. Everywhere, even on buildings that look perfectly finished, there's odd bits of rebar sticking out. Concrete walls always have a bit of extra rebar sticking out in case you want to go higher.

Wonderful loose hand-woven hammocks. I think the best hotel we ever stayed at was a desperation find after something else didn't work out. It was a concrete box with one wall missing facing the sea. There were beds, but also piles of giant cockroaches, cockroaches the size of a deck of playing cards, and it was hot as hell, so nobody slept in the beds. You can always tell you're in a real proper Mexican hotel when there are hammock hooks drilled into the walls. We all slept in hammocks and the sea air blew in through the side of the room that had no wall and it was delightful. (delightful other than the fact that you had to walk down to the ground floor to operate a hand pump to get water pressure up to the third floor).

I remember eating hamburgers a lot. And the great Cristal sodas (Toronja por favor, to which they would always say "Naranja?" and I would have to say "no, toe-ron-ja"). In the summer a little travelling carnival would come to town for a few weeks; the rides were all hand made, rickety, mostly human-powered. One of my favorites was this large wooden box that was held off the ground by an axle through the middle of the box. You would sit inside and then two strong men would just grab the outside of the box and rock it back and forth increasingly hard until it spun all the way around.

1 comment:

Ian McMeans said...

The rebar is a tax loophole - unfinished buildings are apparently taxed differently.

old rants